Gotham Chamber Opera's performance of Il Mondo della Luna is its second Haydn opera in as many years. Last year's L'Isola Disabitata was more traditional in both staging and venue. That production at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, featuring a cast of four, was simply staged with a moveable island as the sole set. Having been directed by Mark Morris, it had its share of oddities: singers in diaphanous dress, and less, scampering around the island with a blow-up toy fawn, to which one character is unusually attached. This production, though, is a different dimension in time and space. More on the order of Wooster Group's La Didone, last year at St. Ann's Warehouse, a production that melded opera (Cavalli's 1641 baroque opera) with science fiction (performers in absurdist space suits singing against the backdrop of the grade B Italian cult film Terrore Nello Spazio), this performance has the advantage of the Hayden Planetarium providing the nexus between modern day space travel and astronomy, and the world of the librettist, Carlo Gondoli, who could only imagine what the mondo della luna would be like.
Whether this opera is "unquestionably Haydn's finest" (H.C. Robbins Landon) or "Haydn's personal favorite of all his operas" (Gotham Website), although another page on the same site claims that L'Isola Disabitata was his favorite opera!, we do know that Haydn admired the opera well enough to reuse probably more music from it than from any other of his works. The overture was used as the first movement of his 63rd Symphony and we can trace at least another eight self-borrowings to other trios, masses and operas. There is some wonderful music here: the bucolic Seasons-like opening chorus “O Luna lucente,” the stratospheric “Ragion nell'alma siede,” the brief shimmering harmonics of the Act II Sinfonia, “Che mondo amabile” with its comic echoes and bird-like whistles (in the score marked con caricatura and Fischiando colla bocca, respectively), the delightful and challenging “Se lo commanda, ci venirò,” the touching duet “Un certo ruscelletto”, some spirited intermezzi, marches and three upbeat Finales. There are also some truly secco recitatives and some Salieri-quality arias. Mercifully, but not mercilessly, this production cuts out the weaker parts to end up with a seamless whole.
The story revolves around the machinations of three suitors in their attempt to win the hands of the daughters of their wealthy but dupable father. The father is tricked into drinking a potion that makes him believe, in his drugged state, that he has been transported to the moon. There on the moon he is fooled into giving up his daughters and maid to the suitors, only to wake up too late to realize his mistake. The suitors, daughters and maid in the short third act are, of course, forgiven and the opera ends joyously.
The production, in all respects, was quite an amazing accomplishment. Working in a very small space on and around the Zeiss projector, the cast was able, except for a few minor stumbles, to overcome the physical limitations to produce lively singing and dancing. The orchestra, at the back of the improvised stage on a constructed platform, blended perfectly with the singers. At times it was as if the orchestra wasn't there, so well integrated were they in this creative and created space. The Planetarium, after all, was not designed for this kind of show and it is to everyone's credit that they so magically made everything work.
The opera was performed without an intermission, the cast and crew cleverly segueing the three acts without once stopping the show or bringing down the lights. Singers disappeared, only to reappear on stage, in what seemed like seconds, wearing different costumes. And what costumes: the men on the moon must have some tailors to design outfits with their own lighting systems! With minimal direct lighting available, the costumes and hand-held props were used to bathe the singers' faces in a moonlit glow. During the second act, ghost-like performers danced to Hadyn's ballettos while twirling self-lit hoola hoops. (I know this sounds silly, but it was really quite effective.)
The reason for staging this opera at the Planetarium is, of course, to be able to use its light show facilities. The second act, set on the moon, would be a hippie's dream: psychedelic firework displays, cartoonish aliens climbing up the dome's infrastructure, Avatar-like faces with hundreds of winking eyes and a trip down a space tunnel that could leave one woozy. Who said that Haydn's operas are dull?
As for the singing, it was, in all respects, top notch. Marco Nisticò as Buonfede sang and acted in the true tradition of the Venetian Pantalone. The women, all sopranos, were uniformly right on the mark. The choice of a man to play the role of Ernesto may seem curious, since it is usually performed as a trouser role by a contralto, but has its justification in the fact that in the three extant autograph fragments of the opera, the roles of both Ernesto and Ecclitico appear in the tenor and alto range.
I won't be a spoiler, but there is one hysterical line sung by Ecclitico near the end of the opera. The original translation would be “I'm rich enough now to break up my grand telescope.” Those of you who are lucky enough to have tickets for this sold-out production will learn the above quotation's clever replacement.
Applause to Neal Goren, Diane Paulus and the entire cast and crew for a wonderful evening!